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PKU Today in History - Mar. 5: Passing of Cai Yuanpei

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PKU Today in History - a daily column featuring historic events regarding PKU and PKUers.



Cai Yuanpei, a renowned revolutionary educator and late President of Peking University, passed away in Hong Kong on March 5, 1940.


Cai was in charge of the university from 1916 to 1927, a critical period in which PKU played a major role in the development of a new spirit of nationalism and social reform in China.


Cai Yuanpei (1863-1940) (File photo/Encyclopaedia Britannica)


Cai passed the highest level of his civil-service examination in 1890, becoming one of the youngest successful candidates (jinshi) in the history of the imperial examination system. In 1904 he helped organizethe Restoration Society (Guangfuhui), a revolutionary group dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), and served as the group's first president. Most of this group later became affiliated with the United League (Tongmenghui), formed in 1905 by the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. Cai became head of the party’s Shanghai branch.


As provisional president of the Chinese republic, Sun Yat-sen appointed Cai minister of education in January 1912, when the 2,000-year-old Chinese imperial system collapsed. Six months later, and shortly after the presidency passed to the military dictator Yuan Shikai, Cai resigned his post and went to Europe, where he remained, except for a brief interval in 1913, until late in 1916. During this period, Cai organized a work-study program in which more than 2,000 Chinese students and laborers traveled to France to study in the schools and work in the factories there. Many future Chinese leaders were trained in this program, including Zhou Enlai, who helped to organize one of the first Chinese communist cells while in Paris.


In 1916, after first declining a position as governor of east China's Zhejiang province, Cai was made president of the most prestigious higher education institution in China, Peking University.


While in office, Cai pushed forward with reform of the university’s leadership. Under Cai, PKU faculty, instead of bureaucrats, had the final say in the decision-making of university affairs through the professor-led university council.


University president Cai also helped modernize PKU's academic disciplines and course offerings. He introduced new disciplines, such as education, psychology, and archeology. He placed special emphasis on physical and aesthetic education for young people.


President Cai was the first educator to enroll female students in the history of Chinese higher education. He also encouraged ordinary people to attend lectures on campus, and in 1918 initiated the "evening classes for the ordinary" programs - today's PKU School for Ordinary People (Pingmin Xuexiao).


President Cai also invited renowned foreign scholars to deliver speeches at Peking University - John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, to name just two - which facilitated PKU's increased involvement with the latest proceedings in modern research.


As a result of Cai’s efforts, the academic atmosphere at Peking University flourished. Many independent journals were published by PKU scholars and students, with influence that reached far beyond the borders of the campus.


"Follow the principle of freedom of thoughts - with an all-embracing attitude" (Xun sixiang ziyou yuanze, jianrong bingbao), President Cai Yuanpei's handwriting


"President forever - a spiritual monument" (Yongyuan de xiaozhang, jingshen de fengbei), inscribed by then PKU President Xu Zhihong in commemorating the 140th birthday of Cai Yuanpei (December 2007)


Under Cai, student associations flourished as well. The New Trend (Xinchao) Association, The Nation (Guomin) Association, and the Young China (Shaonian Zhongguo) Association were three of the most influential groups.


President Cai is regarded as the most significant reformer in the history of PKU because of his principle: freedom of thoughts, and an all-embracing attitude (Sixiang ziyou, jianrong bingbao), now core values of Peking University along with patriotism, progress, democracy, and science.


Peking University Logo, designed by Lu Xun in August 1917


West Gate of Peking University (1952-present)


Cai invited a number of noted contemporaries, who had different backgrounds and held even contradictory ideas to the university. The renowned scholars taught at PKU during Cai's presidency included: Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, Hu Shi, Lin Shu, and Lu Xun, to name but a few. This is by and large the very spirit that made Peking University the origin and center of the New Culture Movement, and more significantly, the May Fourth Movement. The latter began in 1919 as a student demonstration against imperialist exploitation of China and ended as a nationwide movement.


Cai left China for Europe in 1923. In 1926 Cai returned to China and participated in revolutionary activities to support the Nationalists’ Northern Expedition to unify China. After the failure of these efforts, Cai continued to work for the cause of higher education, accepting positions at Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. In 1928 he helped found and served as the first president of the Academia Sinica, China’s highest institution of academic study and research. In 1935 Cai resigned all official posts and retired to Shanghai.


His writings can be found in Selected Works of Cai Yuanpei.



Edited by: Jacques

Source: PKU News (Chinese) and Encyclopaedia Britannica